|Limestone tub at the Seasons Hotel, George V, Paris|
When Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wanted to book three nights in a $1,536.96 a night Paris hotel suite that featured a “King bed, work area with internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” he didn't need to pay for it himself. He got it compliments of his wealthy friend, political contributor, and fellow party animal Doctor Salomon Melgen. Doctor Melgen could afford it since he was loaded due to his business practice of defrauding Medicare to the tune of $105 million.
An extravagant hotel room was the least of Dr. Melgen's gifts to Senator Menendez. According to the U.S. Department of Justice "among other gifts, Menendez accepted flights on Melgen’s private jet, a first-class commercial flight and a flight on a chartered jet; numerous vacations at Melgen’s Caribbean villa in the Dominican Republic and at a hotel room in Paris; and $40,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund and over $750,000 in campaign contributions. Menendez never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen on his financial disclosure forms."
And so, way back two and a half years ago, Senator Menendez was indicted on one count of conspiracy, eight counts of bribery, and three counts of honest services fraud. The indictment spelled out how Menendez used "his Senate office and staff to advocate on behalf of Melgen’s personal and financial interests."
Here's the indictment:
Well, Senator Menendez finally went on trial this week, although I have seen little to no news media coverage of it so far.
Despite his indictment on public corruption charges, the U.S. Senate has not taken any action against Menendez. It has not expelled him, sanctioned him, or even removed him from his committee assignments. One of those assignments was to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which I'm sure was especially pertinent to Menendez's ability to assist Dr. Melgen by pressuring the U.S. State Department to issue visas for the doctor's foreign girlfriends, an offense which features in the indictment.
Bob Menendez was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 113th Congress and continues to serve as a member of the powerful Committee that helps shape foreign policy of broad significance, in matters of war and peace and international relations. In the current 115th Congress
How lucky for Melgen that he had a pet Senator in an ideal position from which to write a letter of support to the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic for a 22-year-old girlfriend and her 18-year-old sister who wanted to visit him in Miami. And when the sisters' applications were denied (a memo outlining the reason read: “Siblings, 18 and 22 yrs old. No children. No previous travel. To go visit a friend in Florida. Neither is working. No solvency on their own. Not fully convinced of motives for travel.”) the good Senator Menendez was willing to take the matter up with the ambassador and with high-ranking officials in the State Department. The sisters were re-interviewed and got their visas the second time around.
Senator Menendez of the Foreign Relations Committee was also willing to write letters of support for a Ukrainian model/actress girlfriend of Melgen's who needed a tourist visa, and for a Brazilian actress who Melgen set up as a law student in Miami.
There is lots more in the indictment, including a charge that Menendez interfered with State Department officials to further one of Melgen's side businesses - purchasing the exclusive right to sell port security inspection equipment to the government of the Dominican Republic - while simultaneously trying to prevent the Department of Homeland Security from sending the Dominican Republic free inspection equipment.
Unless there was a Senator-caught-with-a-dead-prostitute extortion angle here à la Godfather II - and I do not totally discount that there might have been - Menendez was abusing his office out of simple greed. He certainly wasn't the first. Twelve previous U.S. Senators have been convicted on various charges while in office. Political reactions to those convictions have varied.
The last such case was in 2008, when Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) was found guilty of seven counts of making false statements, after which there were immediate and bipartisan calls for his resignation. Barack Obama said that Stevens needed to resign to help "put an end to the corruption and influence-peddling in Washington." In any event, Stevens was never sentenced and his conviction was thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct so egregious that the Department of Justice opened criminal contempt investigations on six members of its own prosecution team.
The last Senator to be convicted before Stevens was Harrison Williams (D-NJ), who was convicted of taking bribes in the Abscam investigation in May of 1981. He brazenly stayed in office until March of 1982, resigning only when the Senate was about to vote on his expulsion.
Should Senator Menendez be convicted, expect him to go the Harrison Williams route and stay in office while he appeals. Unlike with Williams, I'd also expect the Senate to tolerate his presence for at least as long as it takes to get another Democratic Governor in New Jersey. Should Menendez resign before Gov. Cristie leaves in January 2018, Cristie would presumably appoint himself to fill Menendez's term, improving the Republicans' thin 52-to-48 Senate majority. What's a little more corruption and influence-peddling in Washington compared to that?